Categories
Choirs Conducting Leadership

Never be witty: Schönberg on conducting

Schreker has a lot to do. During his absence, I am supposed to lead two rehearsals of the mixed choir, and more often the male choirs. I am still very much in doubt whether I can do this! A word from you, dear Herr Schönberg, would be extremely precious to me.

In a letter of 21 December 1912, twenty-seven year old Alban Berg was desperate for the advice of his friend and mentor Arnold Schönberg. Berg’s trepidation about going in front of the choir is palpable, and familiar to many a young conductor (the fact that he is doing so to rehearse the premiere of Gurre-Lieder notwithstanding).

The elder composer’s reply contains much for the choir director to ponder. I was made aware of it during a recent masterclass, and in this post I’m going to try and unpack some of Schönberg’s wisdom.

The four errors

Schönberg, in his reply dated seven days later, lays down the law in unequivocal terms. His prescriptions make for interesting reading for the present-day choral conductor. Here’s the relevant passage in its entirety, from the letter of 28 December:

It will not be easy for you who are doing this for the first time. That is why I would like to tell you the most important things quickly, which is also in line with my experience. Namely, if you interrupt (and you have to interrupt as often as you 1.) hear a mistake and 2.) know how to improve it), you need to be as brief and clear as possible. Talk as little as possible. Never be witty. But above all: there are only the following types of errors.

1. wrong notes (possibly wrong intonation)
2. wrong rhythm (declamation text pronunciation!)
3. wrong dynamics (p, f)
4. wrong phrasing

There are therefore no other corrections and explanations than:
1. ‘G’ (instead of ‘G sharp’; too high, too low)
2. show the correct rhythm! (sharper, softer)
3. Demand p and f, stronger or weaker
4. Correct the breathing, the intonation (p, f), the paragraphs and beginnings.

The latter (4) belongs to the class of finer elaboration. If you know something about singing, you can say some technical things. You can also pay attention to good pronunciation of the text – but everything else, especially: moods, ideas, beauty, characters and everything poetic is from evil! [von Uebel!] This is for us, but not for the choir! Believe me and do it as quickly as you can. I also had to learn. And the trick is to really demand p[iano] and f[orte] that everything else comes along as a result. It’s not from me, but from all the band masters; but it’s true anyway!

Plenty to unpack!

Firstly, the interruption policy: interrupt as often (and only as often) as you both hear a mistake and know how to fix it. This of course is going to depend on the length and complexity of the work, and I don’t think he is suggesting to Berg that he stop the whole run every time he hears some dodgy intonation in the altos. I daresay he would permit ‘the rule of 3’ – ie, having three-ish things to say each time you interrupt – but the key thing is the next line: ‘be as brief and clear as possible’. No extraneous waffling: fix it, move on.

Demand p and f. The point here is that just saying it sometimes isn’t enough. Sometimes the dynamic has to be ‘demanded’, insisted on, whether by gesture or verbal instruction. Singers can sometimes be reluctant to modify dynamics as much as a conductor would wish, and Schönberg knows it.

Never be witty. This one hits hard for me as I am invariably trying to be witty, often with little success. There could be a cultural element to this, and also an amateur/professional distinction: some choruses appreciate a joke or (brief) anecdote to keep them engaged and relaxed, or to defuse tension; others don’t want to feel like their time is being wasted with inessential talking.

The desire to, as Schönberg puts it, ‘be witty’, stems from the desire to be liked – one with which I am well familiar. People-pleasers like me need to remember that few musicians have much time in rehearsal to think about whether they like you or not – they are too busy trying to do what you have asked of them.

Indeed, the evidence of some senior figures in the music industry suggest that likeability is quite irrelevant to musical success. We are sometimes too concerned with whether everyone is having a good time to remember that the reason we are all there is to make good music.

Schönberg conducting

The evil of ‘everything else’

What about those ‘four types of error’? They boil down to: notes, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing. Look after these (and especially dynamics), Schönberg says, and the rest looks after itself. He allows for a little ‘finer elaboration’ when it comes to phrasing – under which headline he includes technical instruction and pronunciation.

However, we are cautioned in the strongest terms against flowery language – and indeed against saying anything that doesn’t have a direct relation to those four main types of errors. Not only is this unhelpful, says Schönberg – it’s evil!

This anecdote about John Tavener, well-known in British choral circles, summarises the problem (though my version, transmuted through third-hand Chinese whispers, is almost certainly wrong in every particular):

Tavener is watching a well-known cathedral choir rehearsing one of his pieces. Asked for his opinion, he says, “It needs more of a sense of sublime, ineffable mystery.” The conductor turns back to the choir. “You hear that, boys? Louder!”

Conductors often want a poetical effect, a mood to be conjured, motifs to be characterised – but here we’re being reminded that whereas ‘sublime, ineffable mystery’ could be interpreted any number of ways, ‘louder’ only means one thing. The trick, then, is to translate our lofty, poetic ideas into instructions that can be easily understood by the choir.

To take a personal example – recently I enjoined a choir to treat a certain chord, upon their arrival at it, with a sense of ‘discovery’. I imagine I was quite proud of this poetic coup of analysis and interpretation and sat back to hear the effect, which was completely imperceptible.

My process should instead have been this: in order to create a sense of discovery when we reach this chord, delay it slightly and sing it a little softer. Even that first bit isn’t strictly necessary. This would have been more likely to achieve the desired effect. I imagine the same applies double if you and the ensemble do not share a first language (this example is drawn from such an occasion!).

‘This [poetic language] is for us, and not for the choir’. It reminds me of a saying attributed to Richard Strauss: ‘Do not sweat; let the orchestra sweat. Do not weep; let the public weep.’

I’m not sure how widespread that opinion is today. Still, in a climate where there’s less and less rehearsal time available, boiling down our clever, poetic interpretations into concise, legible instructions remains a vital part of score preparation.

Now, to practise. I just need to persuade someone to mount Gurre-Lieder

Categories
Conducting Music Technology

Going paperless as a conductor: iPad + forScore

One of the advantages of being half classical musician, half tech nerd is that I’ve actively enjoyed being forced to grapple with new technologies as a result of the pandemic. In order to keep doing some version of what we do, musicians have adapted to make use of video-conferencing, audio recording, and pretty much anything else we can get our hands on. I’m now the proud owner of a fancy webcam, various peripherals, and a ring light apparently designed for make-up tutorials (a potential side-hustle I will consider carefully).

Even before the pandemic, though, I had been thinking about going ‘paperless’, or something approaching it. Environmental reasons aside, I live in London now, and most of my scores are stowed in an attic. I don’t own a printer; keeping it stocked with ink (expensive) or paper (wasteful) would be a pain.

For most of my life, going paperless hasn’t been a viable option. The technology and hardware either haven’t existed or haven’t been cost-effective. Now, it seems, the tide may have turned. In this blog, I’m going to detail my experiences with going paperless, and how it’s turned out.

Tablet: iPad Pro 12.9in

I was advised by friends to go for the biggest screen possible – anything smaller than A4 doesn’t allow you to display enough of a score to work from. This led to the eventual purchase of a 12.9in iPad Pro 2020 – together with the most expensive pencil I have ever bought, the Apple Pencil 2. I decided it was worth doing it properly – and after all, as a professional tool, at least part of it will be claimable against my taxes this year.

Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Windows advocate, I have to admit that Apple make a really good product. It’s quick, sturdy, and it looks professional, especially in the natty case I purchased for it. Apple fans tend to say ‘it just works!’ and, even though my customary response is ‘where’s the fun in that?’, it does indeed just work.

Score-reading app: ForScore

There are now a handful of apps for managing and viewing your scores, and a fair amount of variety between them. I’m indebted to the Scoring Notes blog for the thorough review of forScore which convinced me it was the one to go for.

forScore is available to download for a one-off payment of £19.99. It’s a powerful bit of software with a lot going on under the hood, though you don’t need to mess around for too long to figure out its basic functionality.

There’s still a degree of orientation required, and you have to get used to tapping the right part of the screen for what you need, for example to bring up the menu. In other words, it needs a little investment of time to ‘learn’ the software. For the first two or three rehearsals using it, I brought along hard copies just in case I couldn’t negotiate the app quickly enough, but it wasn’t long before I was happily zipping through my digital scores.

There’s no lag between page turns, which was something I had initially worried about – they respond instantaneously to a touch on the relevant side of the screen, in the same manner as Amazon’s Kindle. I’ve found I’m able to turn a page much more quickly – and with a more economical gesture – than when using a physical score, though this is a tradeoff for only being able to view one page of a score at a time.

It’s interesting the difference that this makes. As a conductor, you want to be able to absorb the salient points of a score at a glance, rather than spending all your time with your head down. Arguably, the two-page open layout of a regular physical score would be more useful in this regard. But it’s possible, with practice, to flick rapidly back and forth while conducting, due to the speed of the page-turns.

forScore has a wealth of other features including an onscreen keyboard and a metronome, which I haven’t used a great deal, but are nice to have.

Mark-up view in forScore

Markings

Remember that expensive pencil? Well, it does more than clip to the side of the tablet looking pretty (and charging via induction). forScore’s integration with the Apple Pencil is rather clever, and I’ve quickly grown accustomed to using it for markings.

It’s easy to reach for it, and as soon as you start marking the score, the software puts you into marking mode. This works well, and you can double tap on the Pencil to turn it into an eraser, which, with a little practice, is reasonably intuitive.

My only problem here was with not always remembering to exit marking mode (by clicking the ‘Done’ button) after having replaced the Pencil. As such, when I went to turn the page, I ended up jabbing fruitlessly at a corner before realising the software was still in mark-up mode. It turns out there is a feature buried in Settings which fixes this by automatically exiting mark-up mode after a short delay.

I’ve enjoyed marking up my scores in this new environment. I’m not a big colour-coder, but the potential is there, and it’s reassuring to think that you can scribble all over it and erase it later if you go overboard.

Changing the annotation settings

Scores

forScore is reasonably good at importing scores from cloud-based services such as Dropbox (which I use) and Google Drive. You can then edit their title and composer information in the metadata as you please.

Here I’ll admit to a tiny bit of frustration. The integration with cloud services such as Dropbox isn’t two-way, and I’d prefer it if my markings on a score could be synchronised to the cloud-saved file. As it is, you have to manually export the score back in order to do this (unless there’s something I’m missing), which is too fiddly to do regularly. As such, I have ended up with two digital copies of a piece: one unadulterated but on the cloud, accessible anywhere on any computer; and one beautifully marked-up, but accessible only on my iPad.

The other quibble concerns the Labels you are able to add to scores, helping you organise them in the digital library. It’s nice being able to give things ‘Tags’, ‘Genres’, and ‘Labels’, but it’s not clear how each are supposed to be different. This is because each field is actually customisable and can be anything you’d like. In practice, though, I find myself getting confused trying to remember whether I’ve decided that ‘Canticle’ or ‘Sacred’ are Genres or Tags, and as such I haven’t really made use of this function.

Conclusions

First, the pros. I can travel light, with one tablet instead of multiple scores. All the music I need for multiple projects is accessible in one place, with all my markings, backed up on the cloud. The device is robust, and using it is a pleasure. I make more markings, and spend more time with my scores, because they’re always right there, just a click away.

That said, it’s not without its drawbacks. One obvious thing that I haven’t mentioned is that in order to make use of it, you need to possess a pdf or scan of the score. This is all very well with music in the public domain, which these days is available on IMSLP or CPDL – but contemporary music is a different story. Publishers have been wary of digital downloads, perhaps waiting for an app which can control permissions, like Amazon’s Kindle. It would be great, for example, to be able to have heavy books such as choral warhorse Carols for Choirs or my Bärenreiter B Minor Mass available in pdf form.

And one more important warning: remember that the iPad itself, while not exactly heavy, is still weighty enough to slide off an insufficiently robust music stand. It’s enough to give you Black Mirror-style cracked-screen nightmares.

These caveats aside, I’m very glad I took the leap. I now find it difficult to imagine my life without the iPad as my primary score-machine. It looks good, it feels good to use, and it does pretty much everything I need it to. I don’t have to worry about printing a lot of music for a one-off gig. Summoning a score I need at the touch of a button – well, it feels like the future.

Also, I can amuse myself by playing its little onscreen keyboard for hours on end. Myself, mind – I doubt anyone else is amused…

Categories
Creativity

Learning curves: on being bad at things

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which musicians and other artists have been coping with the present situation – one which is, as we are constantly reminded, unprecedented. I know several who launched energetically into diversification almost as soon as the first lockdown was pronounced, pivoting as much of their activity as they could to the internet and going all-in online.

Others have battened down the hatches, keeping a low profile until it all blows over. This better suits those of us with a less entrepreneurial mindset, but it’s a strategy that takes a hit every time another lockdown is announced. I took something of a middle path, educating myself just enough in things audio and visual to be able to keep some form of online engagement just about ticking over.

Right now, this is pretty much all I’m doing: hosting online musical meet-ups with choirs in the evenings, and spending the rest of the time score-learning, battling ennui, and very cautiously planning the 21-22 season. (this latter must be done in whispers – if it hears us it might decide to go the way of the current season…)

However, I’ve also taken up something completely different: drawing. Full disclosure: I am very bad at drawing. Or, at least, I have always thought of myself as very bad at drawing, having displayed no aptitude for it at school – my primary-school cartoon strip, ‘Gauss, the Famous Mathematician’, being notable for its eccentricity rather than for any artistic merit.

After a couple of weeks drawing for half an hour a day, I am pleased to report that I am still quite bad, but joyously, entertainingly and divertingly so. It is a great pleasure being bad at drawing, especially because there is so much room to get better. When I do manage to produce something that actually possesses realistic proportions, or bears a passable similarity to its intended subject, this is an occasion for great rejoicing.

Learning curves

A few reflections arise from this (or would, but I haven’t learned how to do them yet). For one, the feeling reminds me a little of when I took up the organ. Doing so as an adult, post-university, made me something of an exception when compared to my colleagues in church music, who are almost all fantastic prodigies with sparks flying from their fingers and well-earned postnominals coming out of their ears.

What was so enjoyable about it was the almost physical sensation of my brain developing new pathways as I practised. It was as if I could feel the neurons intrepidly mining new channels, whilst I laboured to separate the fingers of my left hand on the keyboard from my feet on the pedals. I was experiencing that exhilarating first rush of the learning curve.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Alanf777_Lcd_fig05.png

Because it had been so long since I’d tried to learn a new instrument, I had forgotten the feeling of making such rapid progress. I’d also forgotten the concomitant feeling of approaching the plateau and the enthusiasm fading away…

Being bad is good

The second reflection is that, at a time when it seems difficult to make material progress on my primary activity, it’s nice to have something that really doesn’t matter. My drawing has no purpose, no end goal, it doesn’t have to accomplish anything, it doesn’t even have to be good. It has no bearing on my livelihood, and indeed, unlike my livelihood, there is nothing currently stopping me doing it.

This chimes with one of YCAT’s recent blogs, by Kate Blackstone:

…find something to be bad at and get better at it. One of the reasons that music practice at a higher level is so difficult is that as you get better, it takes more and more work to make tiny amounts of progress. However, to feel good about themselves, humans have to feel like they’re good at stuff. In psychology we call this ‘competency beliefs’; you can reinforce and support your own competency beliefs by getting better at things, and reminding yourself that it is possible to get better at things.

I would say that in my particular case, even the ‘getting better at things’ part of it isn’t bothering me much – I am enjoying the focus that the activity of drawing is bringing me. But it is prompting a third reflection:

Growth mindsets

If you had suggested I take up drawing even a couple of years ago, I probably would have scoffed at you and pronounced, quite definitively, that I was terrible at drawing and had no natural ability at it, and that would be the end of that. An artistic avenue, closed off forever. But at least I wouldn’t have to worry that if I tried, I would be bad at it – I would simply never try, and therefore save the face of my fragile ego.

I wouldn’t say that my fixed mindset on that has disappeared – it’s still strong. But I’ve learned a lot about mindset since I finally read Carol Dweck’s book (never mind the fact that it had been recommended to me for months or perhaps years beforehand – what if it had contained difficult truths? Better to avoid…). The growth mindset believes that skills can be learned. Indeed, the lower the initial level of skill, the more opportunity for learning.

It’s interesting that if people say to me, ‘oh, I can’t sing’, I have tended to respond that everyone can sing. Why don’t/didn’t I have the same reaction to drawing? We absorb an idea of talent vs hard work early on. My school was a good school, I think, but I don’t remember anyone in an art class ever actually teaching me how to draw – it was just sort of expected. Soon it became apparent to me that there were some people who could just do it, and others who couldn’t, and that I was in the latter camp, Gauss notwithstanding. (The reverse also applied in academics – I seemed to be naturally good without doing very much, at least for a few years – the eventual realisation that I might have to start actually doing some work was deeply uncomfortable and much delayed…)

It’s an impression that stayed with me for a long time, until I realised that a good test of the growth mindset would be whether I could in fact learn to get a bit better at drawing, if I actually worked at it, and had the right teacher. The right teacher, by the way, seems to be the wonderfully enthusiastic Paul Priestly on YouTube. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t draw to spend a bit of time with his videos in order to be swiftly disabused of the notion. He’s the art teacher you always wished for – patient, permissive, bubbling with energy.


It’s interesting how hard it has been to quieten that part of the brain that thinks everything has to lead to something. Occasionally, as I admire a finished drawing, I catch this part muttering: ‘we could get really good at this and then sell them and then it wouldn’t matter if there’s a pandemic and you would be a proper artist’; and all sorts of other strange, ego-flattering pretensions.

Not everything has to lead to something. I didn’t really make any New Year’s resolutions this year – it felt like I could do with a break – but in my mind somewhere is the idea of ‘setting systems, not goals’. Goals can arise out of a good set of well-balanced systems – but they don’t have to. So I’m trying to silence the goal-brain, and just let the rest of me enjoy being quite bad at something quite fun.

Categories
Music Technology

An A.I. attempts to rewrite Thomas Tallis

Jukebox is a type of neural net – an network of artificial nodes which is ‘trained’ on a series of data, and can then be taught to use this data to generate new strings. These artificial intelligence networks have been used to create unique images, poetry, scripts, and music. Essentially, they work from one data-point to the next and try to work out what letter, pixel, or note should come next, based on its training. I first encountered them on the wonderful AI Weirdness blog, which is a rabbit-hole of the hilarious and surreal things that can now be done with this technology.

What makes Jukebox different from many of the varieties of generative music that have come before is that it’s trained not on symbolic datasets – for example MIDI files which encode digital musical instructions into code – but actual audio. Not only that, but it has also been conditioned to recognise the shape of words, meaning it can – sort of – generate these sounds too.

This means that you can feed it an audio sample, give it a few parameters such as a genre or artist to emulate, specify the words, and then ask it to predict what should come next. It bases these choices on what it has learned about the 1.2 million real songs that formed its ‘training’ dataset.

The results, as one might expect, vary wildly in quality. On the aforementioned blog, Janelle Shane posts some creations which are exciting and not a little horrifying – for example, a pastiche Frank Sinatra Christmas song which should belong to an album entitled ‘Music from the Uncanny Valley’.

Most of the results that have so far been posted by researchers have the flavour of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’s ‘One Song to the Tune of Another’ (see here if you need a description of this very complicated game). Thus you can get the AI to do Queen in the style of Nirvana, for example.

Inevitably, a large majority of its training data is non-classical in nature, but I still thought it would be interesting to prompt it with some choral music, to see what it would come up with. The results are surprisingly impressive, though naturally very odd.


Jukebox was primed with about twelve seconds of a recording of the classic Thomas Tallis banger ‘If ye love me’, and given the full lyrics. Now, it has a limited dataset of genres and artists to use as a template, and the closest I could find were ‘Classical’ for the genre and, yes, ‘Mormon Tabernacle Choir’ for the artist. Already the mind boggles.

It had three goes at generating 40 more seconds of the piece, transforming the input through a process of ‘upsampling’ at three different levels. Let’s have a listen to what it came up with after some four hours of labour:

1. If ye love meh

The neural net takes over on the last syllable of ‘commandments’, and in each sample it has a different idea of what chord should follow. Here, it plays it safe and repeats the chord, which works. It’s cool that it makes the phrase lengths broadly ‘vocal’ in nature, and simulates breaths before them too, presumably learning to ape the opening of the prompt.

Some extraneous, non-vocal sounds start to appear in the middle, including at one point what sounds like a train passing, or perhaps a snare drum. I wonder if that’s due to it using the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with their often quite elaborate arrangements, as a model. For all it knows, the piece starts acappella and then goes on to become instrumental. It could also be misinterpreting the acoustical reverb as ‘new sounds’ in their own right, and trying to work out what they could mean.

It also mostly stays in key, until the very end, which normally unremarkable thing I point out as it is not a given in the other samples…

2. If ye…love…meeee….

This one’s ‘-ment’ chord is actually a cool choice – A minor rather than original F major. Afterwards, however, it goes off the rails a little earlier than the previous one. I like the little cymbal ‘ting’ after the second phrase. The choir’s vocal production becomes very slurred, and the AI forgets the key, if it ever knew what that was in the first place. The end becomes rather worrying and distorted, and the harmony is bizarre.

Presumably, because it isn’t given any information about what harmony actually is, it doesn’t know the rules except by what it’s heard before. It must base its moment-to-moment choices about what audio to generate on what previous bits of audio it knows are usually followed by. However, I can’t imagine there are very many examples in the dataset of an audio progression of the sort that happens at the end of this excerpt. How did Jukebox come up with it?

3. If ye love me, keep in the same key..?

Uh. Pretty out-there choice of a continuation chord on ‘commandments’, but it recovers pretty successfully and sticks the landing. The words also feel a little more present in this one, and it stays in a key and sort of in tune longer than the others, at least until a demonic final entry before the file mercifully ends. There’s some intriguing parallelism in the middle, during the extension of a word that I think might be ‘you’. And it remembers to be acappella throughout, which the other two didn’t manage. Probably the most successful.


What’s impressive is that, in all three of its goes, the AI learns that the phrases are preceded by breaths, and apes the length of the first phrase for most of the following ones, varying them subtly but plausibly. But the overall effect of the continuations (if one can ignore the ghostly distorting of the voices) is of someone dreaming a conclusion to a piece to which they only remember the opening. Like dreams, they lose coherence and stop making sense at various points. Still, given that the vast majority of its training is on popular music and other styles, it does a pretty creditable if slightly meandering job.

For me, the results of this are roughly equal parts disturbing, exciting, and hilarious. Disturbing, because the distorted voices end up sounding like something from a horror film. Exciting, because the computer isn’t bound by our conception of harmony or structure – it dreams up new combinations that we might never have thought of. Insomuch as it has worked out the rules, it’s done so by simply listening to a lot of music, like an alien tuning in from another planet and trying to understand how our music works.

As a tool for inspiring creativity, it has limitless potential, because it can always surprise us with its choices. It won’t be long before it gets better at understanding different genres and is able to produce highly competent pastiches – the musical equivalent of these non-existent people.

In the meantime it’s more likely to make me giggle than reflect on the mysteries of human existence. But it won’t be long. I, for one, welcome our new robotic musical overlords.

Categories
Conducting Leadership Music

Book Notes: The Beat Stops Here

It is a truism that conducting can’t be learned from a book. I don’t actually think there are any books out there that purport to be able to teach conducting in complete isolation from actual experience in front of a group of musicians. But I’ve often found books on conducting helpful in clarifying ideas, or untangling tricky concepts both theoretical and practical.

It’s probably also the case that with the relative paucity of conducting time during the pandemic, I’ve been turning to the books occasionally to keep certain concepts fresh in my mind, or to challenge my thinking on various ideas.

So, I’ve decided to make brief notes on a few conducting manuals, drawing out some key quotes, with the aim of distilling some of the insights that I’ve found helpful or interesting, and putting them in one place for ease of referral. And they’re going on this blog in case they’re helpful to anyone else.

It’s been interesting to reflect on the various books about conducting I’ve read over the years. Sometimes I find myself vigorously nodding as page after page illuminates my own experience in ways I hadn’t considered; other times my brow furrows at a concept or illustration that doesn’t make sense to me. There are as many different opinions about what makes good conducting, and good conductors, as there are conductors, musicians, and concert-goers.

I’m starting off with a book that very largely falls into the ‘vigorous nodding’ camp for me, and that’s The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson.


The Beat Stops Here: Lessons on and off the Podium for Today’s Conductor

2017, Oxford University Press

Mark Gibson

Director of Orchestral Studies at CCM, University of Cincinnati

Buy it at Amazon Waterstones

Overview

An experienced teacher and performer, Gibson shares insights honed from years of teaching in the University of Cincinnati’s conducting programme. The book is divided into two, with the first half consisting of intensive studies of particular overtures or movements and workshopping the challenges they present to the conductor. The second half is a more disparate collection of writings on other aspects of conducting, from teaching, to working in particular genres, score study, and more.

(My observations/comments in blue)

Preface

  • Many books begin with physical technique, but for Gibson, score study is more important, and that’s why the book begins with it instead
  • Gibson describes himself as ‘anti-beating’:

Conducting is as much about waving one’s arms as golf is, which is to say, not as much as people think. Both are highly disciplined kinetic activities whose physical manifestations – a beat, a swing – conceal an abundance of subtle movement, both with the body and the mind. (xi)

  • Focus on the beat as the principle idea of conducting is reductive and counter-productive. Hence, the beat stops here!

Foreword

The right equipment for the conducting student is, every day, a score, any score, a pencil, preferably with a good eraser, and a mind that is willing, curious, and relentless. (xiv)

The study of conducting is circuitous; there is no straight line to mastery or success (xiv)

  • Gibson really doesn’t like beating or the idea that conducting should begin with it – it’s the ‘original sin’ of conducting
  • Hard not to agree. I was once told that beating time is what conductors had to learn to do in response to music like the Rite of Spring, but that merely beating time is not the same as showing music. Gibson says it can become ‘the death of music-making’ and that ‘beats beget beats’
  • Words are insufficient to convey what is in music – that’s partly why Gibson tries to avoid the standard words, and looks to invent new terminology related to everyday gestures or images
  • Score study is of primary importance: the aim is ‘to know in the richest sense of the word, any given work the composer has written’

Only armed with that knowledge and understanding will we then be able to communicate what we know of that work to an ensemble and to an audience, employing our bodies from head to toe to speak a nonverbal language of gesture with style and taste. (xv)


Part 1: Repertoire Lessons

The first part of the book consists of bar-by-bar analyses of movements from various genres of classical music: Overture, Opera, Concert, Larger Symphonic Works, etc.

  • Opens with Gustav Meier (Gibson’s teacher) quotation:

There are only three things you have to do to be a conductor: Study scores, study scores, and study scores.

Gibson begins with a glossary of his teaching terminology, much of it an amusing or inventive take on a particular gesture or mannerism. I love them all and there is a wealth of useful insight. Here are some selected examples:

  • Advertising: ‘Many young conductors exaggerate the size of the upbeat; this we call “advertising”‘
  • Buddha face: ‘Images of the Buddha reveal a calm, knowing visage, engaged but not emotional, open and receptive but not active’. Conductors should emulate this, there’s no need for exaggerated facial motion
  • Helium hand – ‘an easy, slow, vertical, non-inflected rising of the left arm and hand in preparation for a signal’
  • ‘S/he who lives by the beat, dies by the beat’
  • Small hand – ‘the bigger the beat, the smaller the listening’
  • ‘Toss the pasta’ – ’round gestures promote connected playing and generate flow’
  • ‘Two adjectives’ – the conducting should communicate the spirit of the work as well as the other necessary information (how loud, soft, fast, or slow). ‘Think of adjectives that accurately describe the spirit of any given passage’

The repertoire studies which follow are brilliantly and sometimes minutely detailed. One needs the score to hand (easy enough with IMSLP) to get the most out of it. It takes the music blow-by-blow, bar-by-bar, explaining the context, highlighting passages which are tricky for the players, drawing analogies to contemporary works or others by the same conductor, and explaining what this means for the conductor.

You very much have the feeling of being with him in his studio as he takes you through his approach. He deals thoroughly with thorny problems – awkward starts, like the upbeat of Mendelssohn’s Die schone Melusine overture – and mixes in general observations clearly drawn from practical performing experience – in the theatre pit, always go strong to the violas!

It’s not for beginners by any stretch – it’s not entry-level stuff. Gibson’s hope expressed in the preface that the book may be of interest to non-musicians wishing to learn more of the conductor’s craft needs to be taken in the light of detailed passages of craft such as: ‘Use your left hand to go from 1st violins straight up to Donna Elvira for her entrance. Don’t shy away from the sfp in bar 4; it should cause a shiver up the spine, both hers and the listener’s, but make sure there is ample bow to sustain the chord its full length.’

It wouldn’t be very helpful for me to summarise this part of the book for ‘notes’ purposes as it’s so minute in detail, and tied to the particular scores. But focussing on these analyses one at a time is a masterclass in the sensitive appraisal of a score and one of the book’s most helpful features.


Part 2: Professional Lessons

Part 2 consists of of a number of articles, some adapted from blog posts, on a variety of subjects from peripheral conducting skills such as building a inner metronome, to management techniques for orchestras and choruses. Here are some things that stuck with me:

Beating

  • ‘Not the Eternal Tao: Conducting is ‘the intersection of gesture and pulse’ (175). The focus on giving a ‘clear beat’ is reductive and unhelpful – the orchestra will not simply play more together if you beat more vigorously

You may think the orchestra wants or needs a clear “beat”. Members of the orchestra may even tell you they want one[…]but in my experience, that is not what they mean and not really what they want (176)

  • The problem with the ‘beat’ as in a singular point of arrival is that, with the exception of percussion, sound in an orchestra or choir doesn’t work that way. A beat can indicate tempo but little else, and doesn’t even need to do that after the upbeat has established the tempo
  • Musicians can keep tempo by themselves, usually
  • If you find yourself over-beating (‘beats generate beats’), stop and try and plug into the group’s tempo, to feel the pulse as something organic that arises out of the group’s activity

Hands

  • Left hand should be independent and useful, not contradicting the right or giving the orchestra multiple ‘targets’ – preferably at a different height to avoid the appearance or temptation of mirroring
  • Mirroring is not uniformly bad, but can leave the right hand with no space to go to across the body
  • In cathedral music, with the choir on either side of the conductor, it can sometimes be an important tool, if it used as such, ie with intent. If done all the time though, it decreases the variety of tone available to you
  • The left hand is a crutch, something to do, but it should have intent. If it’s not doing anything, put it away
  • Vigorous nodding once more (even, perhaps especially, in the knowledge that I use it without intent far too often. I was once taught that the left hand does one of three things: 1) nothing (in which case it is placed by the waist), 2) information, 3) mirrors the right )

Make Your Own Metronome

This is a fun way of learning to internalise tempo:

  • Learn a piece with a clearly defined metronome mark, such as a Beethoven scherzo, such that it can be recalled at will and its tempo marking applied. Do this for all the metronome markings
    • Here it is pleasing to observe Gibson joining me on the smallest hill on which I will die, which is non-existent metronome markings, such as those giving crotchet = 41, or 65, or 113. ‘those numbers don’t exist on a metronome’, says Gibson, adding with tongue in cheek, ‘no real composer uses them’
    • Note to self: a metronome goes up, from 60, in 3s, then from 72 in 4s, then from 120 in 6s, and from 144 in 8s)
  • It has the tempos you need, but the given tempo might not be the right one in a particular circumstance – they’re an important starting point but not a finishing point

Storytelling

  • Trouble shaping a melody? Why not invent some words in the right character? Uses example of giving a Dvorak melody folk-esque words. Generates a narrative and helps you find musical shapes

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes

  • Deals with the physicality of conducting – this is much more than just arms and gesture
  • Disassociate the bobbing of the head with an accent in the music – young conductors do this a lot
  • (I certainly did and continue to if unpoliced)
  • The face: be like the calm bus-driver ‘who knows where s/he is going, and gets you there without fuss or drama.’ Try not to exaggerate facial expressions (to which I would add Zoom is a painful reminder that we do this a lot in an attempt to please)
  • Gibson advocates ‘Buddha face’: ‘the serene visage of a generous, knowing presence’. Open, aware, listening, but not dominating or being needy (angle of chin also has a bearing on this latter)
  • Sniffing as an upbeat is a ‘disagreeable habit’ and distracting to audience and orchestra alike – for one thing, the wind and brass players, not to mention singers, for whom you are a model, mostly breathe through the mouth. Don’t open the mouth too far though as it looks silly
  • For Gibson, the arm is the breath (this is good – I often feel like I breathe too much and find myself hyperventilating)
  • Mouthing along to chorus (particular pertinent to choir directors of course and a much discussed issue). Like mirroring, it is not as simple as saying ‘never’ or ‘always’. It can help reinforce a particular onset or bring ‘bite’ to a certain word or phrase, but done to excess it inhibits the listening of the conductor to what they are actually doing, much like an exaggerated beat does
  • It also annoys the choir, who might feel consciously or otherwise that they are not being trusted to read words
  • Generally ‘the more we do physically, the less we listen’ (197)
  • Keep lips relaxed
  • Stand up straight and try not to bend over – must be balanced with a proper centre of gravity
  • Knee bends! A difficult habit to break
  • I find they’re especially bad in propulsive baroque music where the knees just really want to get involved
  • The entire act, from backstage from the dressing room to the podium should be practised and rehearsed – this avoids nervous habits, extraneous movement, or a loss of control. The behaviour and demeanour of the conductor is being assessed before they even take the podium
  • If you have to look at the score to turn the page, you don’t know it well enough. Consider also when to turn the page – it might not be where the publisher has put a page turn
  • Don’t turn the music stand around – if the music’s at a 90-degree angle to the floor you’re going to have to lean over to see it – orchestras distrust this
  • Interesting. I’ve seen lots of people do this in masterclasses and always wondered why they did as I would always panic that the score was going to fall off

Discipline your body, your posture, and your head, and your conducting will grow in confidence, simplicity, and effect (199)

👏👏👏

Score reading

Annuziata Tomaro contributes a guest article with some tough truths about score-reading

  • You should read clefs as what they are, rather than transposing them in your mind to a clef with which you are more familiar
  • Alto clef a classic example, the middle line is C, not ‘a B in treble clef and therefore transpose up one to get C’

Quantifiable

  • Bill Buford: ‘one does and does and does until one eventually knows more than others and learns the craft’ (214)
  • If you want a conducting career: helps if you don’t want worldly possessions. Pack light. Be thick-skinned
  • Nothing sexy about the mastery of the craft, and no guarantees of success. ‘People win competitions and positions; I know neither how or why’
  • So much is hard to measure – you can test specific things but there are many that elude measurement
  • ‘When all else is in place, art shows up’

Three-Part Conducting Rules for All Occasions

1. if the orchestra doesn’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.

2. if you don’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.

3. if you really know the score, it still doesn’t matter where you put your hands. (233)

He knows when to pose questions rather than offer simple solutions: for example on the vexed question of whether, how, and why an orchestra should ‘watch’ the conductor.

Choruses

Of course I’m also interested in what he has to say about working with singers and choruses, and there are a couple of articles on that here too. Gibson learned his chorus chops in the opera house. It’s always worth hearing the orchestral conductor’s perspective on choirs

…amateur and student choruses are working with you out of love; they love the music and/or they love the social dynamic of singing in a chorus. Very different from the orchestral situation[…]if you ignore them from the podium, you let them down (241)

  • Whereas he permits the orchestra to look at their music and spare you the odd glance if you’re very lucky, he notes that choruses need to be out of their copies in order to communicate emotion, and for their voices to speak out into the building, and so that they have a feeling of communication.
  • He goes into the chorus rehearsal with the music memorised, and makes the bargain: I won’t look down if you won’t.
  • I like this, even if it feels like a tough challenge when the musical workload goes up
  • Lauds Romano Gandolfi, with whom he worked, who conducted with very small gestures and insisted on the chorus’s maximum attention
  • Returns to the issue of ‘don’t mouth the words’ with the further observation – why do we do it? Do we think we are helping, and if so, why? ‘Never once have I had a chorus member ask me to mouth the words’ (242)
  • When working with chorus, know when to ‘press the button’. Late in the rehearsal process, something isn’t working and the ensemble has lost focus – it can sometimes be permitted to ‘press the button’, stop proceedings and gently but firmly remind the chorus of what we had rehearsed and thank them for their attention. Stresses this should only be used with amateur choruses and then at most once
  • Be encouraging and have high energy at all times. Choral rehearsals are ‘exhausting and exhilarating’

‘know before whom you are standing’ (Hebrew proverb)

There are also some useful comments on careers and people skills towards the end:

Only after a while, and often too late, do you, as the recently engaged music director, realise that no only were you putting on a show for the orchestra during the audition process, the orchestra and its various entities were putting on a show for you. Both parties were selling, and now both must deal with the reality of living together. (250)

This rings true and brings to mind the observation that in an audition, both parties should evaluate each other for fit, not just one way around!


Key insights

Who lives by the beat, dies by the beat. Try to avoid making it the focus of your craft, instead think about the interaction of gesture and pulse.

Generate a vocabulary of gesture with imagery and metaphor to provide the widest range of physical responses to music.

Score study is vital and neglected at your peril.

Who’s the book for?

Conducting students and those looking for fresh perspectives on their craft. Anyone interested in the analysis of music from a performer’s perspective.


I hope you’ve found this summary helpful. If you’d like to buy the book, you can use the links at the top of the post. I intend to give one or two other books the same treatment, so watch this space if you’re interested. Thanks for reading!

Categories
Choirs Music

I’m dreaming of a white…carol-book

Going from being the centre of attention on the podium, everyone’s breath waiting on your slightest movement, to once more being just another small box in the corner of someone’s screen, is bruising for the usually well-nourished conducting ego. After a precious couple of months back in action this Autumn, November’s supplementary lockdown heralded a return to the awkward arranged marriage of choral rehearsal and video-conferencing software. In leading online sessions for the non-professional choirs I work with, I have been forced into a much deeper relationship with my trusty white volume of carols than I had hitherto considered possible.

In normal circumstances, I try to avoid working on carols more than a couple of weeks before Advent. I know only too well, from my time as a singer, the loss of Christmassy magic that can accompany one’s thirtieth rendition of ‘O come all ye faithful’ during the season (perhaps especially as an alto droning away somewhere in the vicinity of middle C). However, with the short lead time involved, and with music hire companies in much more limited operation, we have been forced to turn to music which everyone would have to hand, and this has meant returning once again to the august OUP collection 100 Carols for Choirs.

We’ve now spent a few weeks mining deep in the rich seams of its (mostly) accessible and festive carol arrangements, taking two or three at a time and merrily bashing our way through them on Zoom. It’s caused me to take a closer look at a volume of which I had thought I had intimate knowledge. One happy by-product has been the discovery of some interesting things I had previously passed over – but it’s also true that its very popularity has led to a certain homogenising of the choral music of Christmas.


In a dim corner of my mind, I remember an undergraduate lecture on Javanese gamelan, where we learned that the once-multifarious regional styles of gamelan music rapidly homogenised in response to the availability of recordings of prestigious ensembles. The dissemination of the recordings led to imitation of the most admired ensembles, so that the peculiar regional differences were gradually ironed out.

It’s not a huge leap to say that a volume with the reach of Carols for Choirs has done the same. Take those Willcocks descants, for example. They are pretty uniformly excellent, tastefully yet dramatically reharmonising the tunes and providing a satisfying conclusion to the congregational carols. However, most are now so universally well-known and well-beloved that their inclusion has become de rigeur. The choirmaster who attempts to introduce different descants is greeted with a chorus of moans from choristers for whom a chord of B half-diminished is the authentic sound of their childhood Christmas. (This is despite the best efforts of OUP, who included a number of new descants in 2011’s Carols for Choirs 5.)

It’s also true that the CFC series has heaped another mound of earth on the idea of carols as belong to any season other than Christmas, despite the token inclusion in 100 CFC of one or two Easter carols. The once-popular Easter Carol Service is now more likely a service of Easter readings and anthems, depriving the Easter season of the fertile interplay between secular and sacred that manifests in carol services during Advent and Christmas.

Contemporary carol composition has also had a hand in taking the genre further from its dance-music roots. We’re rather more likely to hear a delicately-harmonised andante such as Rutter’s Cradle Song than something rambunctious in the model of Willcocks’ Angelus ad virginem or Sussex Carol. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s nice to have both presented side-by-side, giving us options for balance – especially as we’re just as likely these days to use the volume as the anchor of a festive concert programme as the backbone of a church carol service.


Internet choral celebrity Patrick Allies recently took to Twitter to lampoon the way 100 Carols is generally used. It’s a book of two halves; half the ones that everyone does every year, and the half of pieces that still languish in obscurity. Part of this is probably the gamelan effect of choirs such as that of King’s College, Cambridge, broadcasting the ‘authoritative’ carol interpretations and arrangements annually on Christmas Eve.

Knowing that I might otherwise drive myself mad spending two months on carols, I’ve been using the opportunity to take a couple of choirs on excursions around the corners of the volume I knew less well. Willcocks and Rutter took full advantage of editor’s privilege, with the result that just under half of the pieces in 100 CFC are composed or arranged by Willcocks, and a further quarter by Rutter, the unquestioned King of Christmas. There are some real gems: Willcocks tends to arrange traditional carols from various countries, while Rutter prefers to employ the Christmassy Word Randomiser(TM), generating heart-warming texts by assembling ‘stable’, ‘babe’, ‘light’ etc in various combinations. The editors’ achievement is in compiling a very complete and useful volume by casting a wide net, and, where they’ve needed to fill a gap, writing it themselves, in the great Kantor tradition.

There are a few I haven’t yet dared to tackle, even over the sound-proof medium of Zoom (on Zoom, noone can hear you scream). Among them is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ave plena gracia, placed alphabetically very near the start of the volume and a somewhat daunting sight even for the hardened chorister. I’ve never once heard of it being performed or recorded, and it appears neither on Spotify or YouTube. Go on – I dare you to include it Nine Lessons next year. And while you’re at it, write your own descant – a little bit of regional diversity isn’t such a bad thing, and we wouldn’t want to all sound the same, would we?

Categories
Creativity

Will ‘design thinking’ save classical music?

I recently happened on an online webinar series hosted by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), entitled ‘Introduction to Design Thinking for Musicians‘. Now, this is sort of thing is perfect clickbait for me. ‘Design Thinking’ sounds like a cool piece of Silicon Valley tech-speak – and we can use it as musicians? Sign me up!

Like most of these cool-sounding strategies, though, there’s some pretty nebulous stuff hiding under the hood, which we’ll have to unpack before we get to whether this is actually going to revolutionise the concert experience as we know it.

What is ‘design thinking’?

Design Thinking has a few definitions, but from what I can see it’s mostly about developing products by reverse engineering the problem a consumer has, and solving it. But hang on – why use normal words when we could do this?:

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.

A ‘solution-based approach to solving problems’ sounds a little like the winner of an early 00’s Tautology of the Year competition. The more useful part of that paragraph is to do with the word ‘iterative’. You try something out, make small adjustments in response to feedback, and put out a new version, with a tight loop that should quickly generate improvements to the product.

Apple is a classic example of a company that’s renowned for this way of designing. They think their way into the consumer’s head, and solve their problem before they know they have one. The process is supposed to force you out of ingrained patterns of thought about how to frame problems and provide solutions.

There’s one more concept we need to introduce here, before we dig into the applications of this strategy to music, and that’s User Experience, or UX – the way the customer actually interacts with your product. In most use-cases, you want this to be fuss-free, accessible, and efficient. As an early social-media engineer now puts it, ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’ UX design helps funnel people towards where you want them to be, or what you want them to do (or click).

Can we leverage this to improve the experience of music to audiences?

Come on, less talk, more saving classical music

OK, we’re getting there. A couple of people have begun to make the leap from UX to AX: ‘Audience Experience’. Essentially, centre the experience of the audience and design a concert around their needs. Zachary Manzi, an orchestral performer himself, has written on this extensively for Medium. The pitch is a good one:

…the traditional concert experience is just one kind of experience. We can design new ones to elevate music in ways that speak to new people.

So far so good, and even if you feel the ‘traditional concert experience’ gets a lot of unfair flak these days, it’s no great leap to suggest it doesn’t appeal to everybody. Manzi’s solution is to apply design thinking to the concert experience:

What does this really look like in music? If we are a piano trio and creating an experience for 20-somethings poets, then we must understand who these people are, what they enjoy, what they hate, what they do on the weekends, where they like to hang out, how they talk, and what else they would be doing if they weren’t at a concert. Then we build a tailored experience that invites them to pave a path through the music in a way that is intrinsically valuable to them.

Let’s set aside for now the issue of whether creating a better Audience Experience necessarily results in creating better art – there isn’t space here for me to take on Milton Babbitt, even were I the right person to do so. For now, we can choose to evaluate this through a lens of ‘getting bums on seats’ rather than ‘creating great art’.

I like the idea of an experience tailored to a particular group who you’ve designated as ‘your audience’ for the purpose of a particular project or concert. There’s a little problem of scale if you choose the wrong niche, though, specifically whether there are enough 20-something poets to fill the space and make the event commercially viable.

Manzi’s description of an event created along these lines takes a solid premise: people aren’t always feeling what we’re feeling when we’re listening to music, so let’s create a programme where musicians explain what particular pieces mean to them:

Musicians of the orchestra…introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people. Audience members share their reactions to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder…or just enjoy the music.

Whether you read that with approval or horror probably says something deep and meaningful about your cultural background. Regardless, it’s an inventive solution to the problem, though you would have to have an audience willing to play along – and presumably listen to a fair amount more talking than a traditional concert.

Audience Experience

The ‘creating an experience’ mentality has had benefits in related fields. Secret Cinema (recently, and not un-controversially, awarded a grant from the very fund I was writing about a few weeks ago) has made the cinema-going experience into a thorough-going event that has proven very popular, and (until this year at least), lucrative.

I imagine it helps that cinema at its most mainstream has an incredibly wide base of appeal. I’m not sure everyone would be as enthusiastic as me about a Handel soiree experience in which the audience is greeted by bewigged attendants and interacts with actors playing, I don’t know, Hanoverian royalty, while swanning around an 18th-century ballroom.

Critics of Design Thinking warn that non-STEM disciplines are being forced into models that simply don’t apply to them. It’s safe to say Lee Vinsel isn’t a fan, here quoting an architectural professor:

“It’s design as marketing,” he said. “It’s about looking for and exploiting a market niche. It’s not really about a new and better world. It’s about exquisitely calibrating a product to a market niche that is underexploited.”

That said, in the current climate, classical music would probably settle for exploiting some market niches.

Give the people what they want?

A broader concern is – to risk another nebulous concept at this late stage – to do with authenticity. Artists are generally encouraged to communicate something personal through their art, rather than simply something that will appeal to the consumer. If we concentrate on chasing the audience experience and designing our offering around them, how much are we communicating of ourselves, and how much do we simply end up chasing trends?

‘Give the people what they want’ might work for mass media (and James Bond), but part of the problem in generating new audiences for declining art forms is that the people don’t always know what they want. We should absolutely be applauding any effort to present music in original and effective ways – and looking to the tech world for solutions is fine, if we remember that what works in one field doesn’t always transfer neatly over to another. There’s a balance to be struck between creating a more appealing product and making better art. Right now we’d probably settle for a little security, and if ‘design thinking’ is a tool to help us get there, maybe I can let go of a little cynicism.

Categories
Choirs Conducting

Thematic concert programmes: worth the hassle?

Conductors…do not always know how to shape a meaningful whole out of smaller pieces…We often program according to some vague theme or chronological order, perhaps without real thought to or justification for our choices.

I feel, as they say, seen. The themed programme is a staple of choral concerts the world over, and yet it can often feel unsatisfying. So convinced are we of the need to theme an evening’s musical offering, to weave it tightly together to make a cogent whole, that we can often end up in an uncomfortable straitjacket. I find myself casting around for something that hasn’t already ‘been done’ in order to justify a selection of music. But is it really necessary, and can we avoid the hassle that the themed programme so often entails?

Why we use themes

The obsession with themes tends to manifest in classical choirs, and rather less so in orchestras. Partly that’s because orchestras deal on the whole in much larger chunks of music. The standard orchestral concert programme requires an overture, a concerto, and a symphony – three items, increasing in length, and usually filling up a couple of hours quite neatly. There’s often simply no need for any kind of external bracket to unify the music. Job done.

Choirs, on the other hand, have additional considerations, at least when performing on their own, or with a single accompanying instrument. The most obvious is the endurance level of the singers, reckoned generally to be lower than that of most orchestral instruments. The other is the available corpus of music, ranging from miniatures to epics, but often on the shorter side, especially where sacred music is concerned.

To compensate for the lumpy proportions of the music, choral programmes have embraced the extra-musical linking device of the theme. We want audiences to feel that what they’re hearing is a cogent hour or so’s music, and that it hangs together with some kind of consistency.

It comes from a hyper-awareness of an audience, wanting to provide them with a guide, a narrative thread, that will give them a route in to understanding and appreciating the music that the choir has prepared.

Advantages of the themed programme

A theme offers this curated experience, taking the listener lightly by the hand and leading them on a tour of whatever it is that’s being explored. A theme, whether loose or tightly-concentrated, provides a prism through which to view the music, a way to help understand and contextualise it.

Additionally, juxtaposition of items is a powerful tool to illuminate connections in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the most seemingly unlikely of segues can yield great insights into compositional process or musical sentiment. There was a recent, thrilling example of this in one of the BBC Proms’ eerily audience-less concerts this summer – Simon Rattle led the LSO straight from a Gabrieli canzona into Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a striking and unpredictable segue which played up the dramatic contrasts of groups of instruments in both pieces.

Of course, juxtaposition of this sort need not be confined to the themed programme per se. But another reason we value a unifying extra-musical element is that it provides an entry point, especially to non-specialists or those less familiar with the genre of music on offer. Even the presence of just one or two words, nominally applying to all the pieces in a concert, allows someone with little experience of listening to a particular kind of music to find ways to apply these descriptors, and find a way in.

Problems with themes

However, it’s very easy to get bogged down in a theme, or for these themes to become tired and lazy through unthinking repetition. It has become a standing joke in choral circles (if not a particularly hilarious one) that a newly-formed chamber choir will specialise in early music, new music, and Parry’s Songs of Farewell.

When inspiration doesn’t strike, it can be all to easy to pick a well-worn trope and use it as the basis for a programme – or to try and squeeze pieces into a theme that don’t belong there. Audiences can be forgiving (especially if you do this with a wink!), but it’s awkward when a piece is shoehorned into a programme where it doesn’t belong. Constructing a programme within a restrictive theme can be like playing Tetris in four dimensions.

Equally, in the desire to present a theme which hasn’t been ‘done’, it can quickly get quite abstruse. I remember thinking myself very clever for a segment of a Christmas concert which I entitled ‘The Three Kings’ and populated with music by Caspar Othmayr, Melchior Hoffman, and Balthasar Resinarius. I might have been royally pleased with myself – but did it add anything apart from being a little glib?

I sometimes think the use of themes in this heavy-handed way betrays a rather patrician lack of trust in the audience. Do we really feel that audiences can’t handle a programme which is simply a selection of music we want to perform? The enthusiasm gained on our part is surely much more valuable to the success of the concert.

In these situations, why don’t we simply free ourselves from the strictures of the theme – let ourselves off the hook a little? After all, audiences are rarely thinking about the intricacies of a programme when listening to it as much as we are when assembling it. Better to embrace this sometimes and simply say: here is some music that we think represents us right now. We hope you enjoy it.

There’s a palpable sense of relief in casting aside that unworkable theme and replacing it with the answer to the question: what do the ensemble and I actually want to perform at the moment? The results of investigating that question could be of much more value than a too-clever theme.

Teach without being didactic

Ultimately, I like to leave an artistic event, be it a concert or a visit to a gallery, feeling cleverer – but not simply because I’ve been taught something, but because I’ve figured it out for myself. I think the most successful programmes are ones that gently lead an audience to work something out on its own – figure out a connection, understand a form.

That’s one of the reasons the much-maligned chronological programme remains useful. Art galleries still generally arrange works in chronological order from early to late, and that works for us – we notice the developments in style and form, even if we don’t have specialised training. The clever curator leaves clues so that we can teach ourselves what they want us to learn from the exhibition.

In live performance, we know that even the most carefully-designed programme only comes to life if it is presented engagingly. When I first started programming and conducting concerts, I was very determined that the music should speak for itself. I remained resolutely tight-lipped as my meticulously planned programme segued imperceptibly from one piece to another. I’m sure there are times when this approach can work, but now I think it can alienate as much as it can draw in, especially with a new listener. These days – depending on the programme and the place and all sorts of other factors – I’m generally much more comfortable interrupting the musical flow at intervals to speak to the audience and offer a few thoughts on what to listen for, or how.

Clearly, these extra-musical elements are important, especially to those new to the form. It’s interesting that some of the most successful and artistically interesting choral presentations to come out of the Year of Hell that is 2020 have involved a heavy dose of narrative, implied or actual: Marian Consort’s sequence of collaborative filmed projects, or Stile Antico’s recent Journey of the Mayflower.

The challenge, then, is to find extra-musical narratives, be they thematic or otherwise, which help us generate programmes that we are actually excited about performing, and that audiences will find energising and informative.

Categories
Creativity

Stop making the economic case for the arts

Arts funding is in the news again. The government’s announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund has prompted a round of online discussion of the place of the taxpayer in subsidising culture. It’s not hard to imagine that a feeding frenzy will soon be upon us, with arts organisations and venues gearing up to compete for a slice of the £1.57 billion available.

Why the ‘economic case’ is made

In the arts world, we often feel like we must fight to maintain the place of something we feel is essential in a world that doesn’t always seem to agree. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for those defending state-subsidised art to do so in terms of its economic benefit to a nation or community. In the UK, studies such as this one are cited, speaking of how much the creative industries contribute to GDP.

It’s a line of argument that is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling, because it appears to use a language that governments understand: that of economic value. It’s felt that an economic argument will have the greatest chance of success with the money-obsessed decision-makers in Whitehall – a measurable instrument of success that they can plug into their spreadsheets. But frustrating, because I think most of us would agree that the true value of art to a community or country doesn’t lie in its contribution to GDP.

Problems with the economic case

  1. What are the ‘creative industries’ anyway?

Let’s return to that study. I often see people on social media using the ‘creative industries contribute £13 million to the economy every hour’ line to justify state funding of artistic enterprise. But what actually are these ‘creative industries’, and do they perhaps merit a certain amount of scare-quoted suspicion in this context? Here’s an extract from the report:

The sector was supported by large contributions from tech services and the film and television industries, which contributed £45.4 billion and £20.8 billion to the economy respectively. Another boost was delivered by the advertising and marketing industries, which account for a quarter of the total growth of the creative industries since 2017.

There are a couple of things to draw out of this. ‘Tech services’ is still a little mysterious, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt – it could refer to the highly successful video games that have come out of British-based companies in recent years. Next comes film and TV – mass media genres drawn to Britain by its lucrative tax breaks. Then there’s advertising, and marketing.

So, while the ‘creative industries’ are indeed generating healthy contributions to Treasury coffers, are these really the areas we mean when we cite these figures to defend investment in opera, dance, or live theatre? (If the success of film is how we’re going to justify investment in art, then it’s certainly a far cry from Keynes’ mantra upon founding what would become the Arts Council: ‘Death to Hollywood’!)

More recently, the Arts Council took a stab at defining more closely the actual cultural sectors involved, but still with a focus on the economic gain accruing from them.

2. What if the economic tide turns?

If the creative economy stops contributing as much to GDP as we say it does, how can further investment be justified? By tethering arguments for state subsidy to the economic performance of the sector, we make a rod for our own backs if it then stops making money. This could happen for any number of reasons, including changing tastes or modes of consumption.

To lean into the economic argument sets up a trap later down the road. If the numbers turn against us, and the creative industries stop being the economic boon we confidently assert that they currently are, perhaps even becoming a net drain on public resources, what argument can we fall back on?

3. Square pegs and round holes

London’s Southbank Centre was in the news recently for taking the decision to make two thirds of its staff redundant. Staff were told that when the centre – the largest arts centre in Europe, apparently – reopens, it will be run on a ‘start-up’ model. If you’re wondering what that means in practice, you’re not alone:

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is obviously nonsense, but it reflects the fact that organisations with an arts focus are increasingly being told to align themselves with the values and concerns of the trendy ‘startup’ model of business.

Should arts organisations really model for-profit businesses? If their worthiness for state support depends on it, thanks to that economic argument for their value, then it’s no surprise if they try and force themselves into a business model that appears to justify it.

4. Does investment in art directly lead to industry economic benefit?

It’s sometimes argued that there is a ‘trickle-up’ effect, by which investment in art filters in to the success of the wider creative industry. But the direct economic links between subsidised culture and creative industry are still not well understood. John Holden, who has written extensively on public policy relating to culture, articulated this back in 2007:

…the creative industries are still, in spite of all the attention that they have received, not fully conceived, explained, narrated or understood. At a fundamental conceptual level, the ‘creative industries’ idea veers between on the one hand being based on the creative capacities of individuals, and on the other being a categorisation of industry types.

It’s therefore too simplistic to say that investment in subsidising culture leads directly to some economic benefit via the creative industries.

5. The economic argument misses the point of art

Don’t worry – a definition of the point of art is somewhat outside the scope of this post. But it’s true that when compelled to articulate the actual value of art to communities, we tend to struggle. Most of us would agree that the ‘value’ of an artistic activity cannot be measured purely by its economic consequences. Social and cultural factors are at least as important.

The result of this is that a generation is at risk of not being able to make the case for investment based on anything except economics – which, as we’ve seen, is not a stable premise. Kate Levin underscores the risk in this article:

…you have to be able to describe your value. There can be a little bit of ‘we’re on the side of the angels’ in the creative sector, and the assumption that people understand what those benefits are.

So what’s the alternative?

If the economic argument doesn’t hold water, what other techniques can we use to make the case for public investment in art? Are there other arguments we can marshal, other valuations we can usefully deploy?

Arts Council England – the current successor to Keynes’ ‘Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts’ – has developed a 10-year plan, ‘Let’s Create‘, articulating its vision for publically-funded culture. It does a good job identifying some of the problems with access to culture across the country, and acknowledges a need ‘to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture’.

However, there’s little in there that explains in simple terms why we as a people should fund the means of artistic creation. When one eventually reaches ACE’s ‘Investment Principles’, there’s a fair amount of buzzwordy jargon and not a great deal of solid matter. So what else is there?

  1. Soft power

If we still want to go down the route of talking to government in its own language, there’s always the idea of culture as ‘soft power’ – culture as an export, disseminated to project values and power across the world.

It’s interesting to see that Portland’s Soft Power Index has put the UK at number 1 or 2 in the world for the last five years, with ‘Culture’ tied with ‘Education’ as its chief asset. However, this is still largely the result of big-budget film, TV, or literature products such as Sherlock or Harry Potter – not the smaller, more fragile industries propped up by state support which are the focus of this post.

2. Enrichment

In a 2012 article for The Guardian, playwright David Edgar highlighted a case for the arts which centred on the idea of enrichment:

Five years ago, the Arts Council set out to produce a threefold definition of art’s purpose: to increase people’s capacity for life (helping them to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”), to enrich their experience (bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives”) and to provide a safe site in which they could build their skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three.

I think this is compelling. Edgar goes on to lament how difficult these three effects are to quantify, but concludes that widening participation in artistic endeavour is likely to have the most long-lasting social benefit. But where does that leave high-level traditional opera, say, or other genres which are the domain of the highly-trained? Artistic value in these areas still seems to elude the quantifying measures required by state subsidy.

What does that leave us with?

Cultural ecology

John Holden, commissioned to report on this topic by AHRC in 2015, elects to reframe the subject as a ‘cultural ecology

…culture is an organism not a mechanism…careers, ideas, money, product and content move around between the funded, commercial, and homemade/amateur parts of the overall cultural world in such a way that those funding categories cannot be disentangled.

Finally we have a view which reflects the complexity of the contemporary creative landscape – culture as an interconnected series of pursuits, professions, and crafts, each umbilically linked to the others.

Seeing culture as an ecology allows the formation of ‘a comprehensible overview that does not privilege one type of value – financial value – over others that attach to culture’. A later passage is worth quoting in full, because it gets right to the heart of our discussion about the problems of relying on economic value alone:

It is…a category mistake to treat culture only as economy, because the cultural ecology operates in ways, and produces effects, that transcend monetary transactions. The mistake has real consequences. One is that concentrating on only monetary valuations of the system (which the Treasury’s Green Book methodology demands, in that it requires all types of value to be expressed in monetary terms) inhibits interactivity, and is likely to reduce the creation of both financial and cultural value. Another is that non-monetary flows in the ecology are neglected whereas in fact, as Crossick explains: ‘without an extraordinary level of free-sharing, value cannot be formed’. The cultural ecology cannot be understood without taking into account free labour and emotional rewards.

So, the focus on the measurable economic benefit of art not only misrepresents what art does, but does active damage to what it can do.

People do not have a solely ‘professional’ relationship to creation. They move through different phases, pourously – at different times and in different circumstances they can be amateurs, professionals, spectators, supporters. I started singing as an amateur; I spent a few years as a professional singer; but in my current phase I’m more likely to listen to and support others singing than participate directly myself.

Not all of our labour is directly able or apt to be monetised, and there is no blanket distinction in art between the amateur and professional worlds.

Holden is leading us towards viewing the cultural environment as a whole. This allows him to suggest targeted interventions which might take the form of funding, based on asking ourselves questions about what art needs:

It is helpful to think of these biological concepts as a set of life-cycle questions: what conditions bring a form of culture into being? How is that form of culture then sustained? What threatens its existence? How can it be nurtured to grow to its full potential? How can it help other life-forms to emerge? When should it be let go?


Perhaps we shouldn’t be shying away from the complexity of the organism that is ‘culture’. Finding the right answers to the questions above could result in funding going a lot further.

However, it’s certainly true that fulsome answers to complicated questions don’t fit in a tweet. And if government only talks the language of economy, can it be persuaded to learn that of ecology?

It might not be so far-fetched. After all, the national conversation about the natural environment has advanced greatly over a short time, with those in government generally agreed that the care of the natural world is a matter of pressing concern. The ecology model might be one to road to helping us present subsidised culture in the same light – and attract a similar level of concern.

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Creativity

Creative portfolios: diversifying against risk

I recently made my first, tentative foray into the stock market. I know very little about stocks and shares, but what I have managed to glean so far is this: diversification helps inoculate against risk. Diversifying your holdings, by spreading them out across multiple kinds of investment or country or genre or ‘asset class’, means that if there’s a crash in one area, you’re still (hopefully) not going to lose out too much. I’ve been wondering if this is a useful analogy for professional work in the creative world.

[…] diversification is the investing equivalent of a free lunch. Research suggests that, not only is it the best way of managing risk but, over the long-term, also leads to higher returns. 

Lars Kroijer

In the past six months, we’ve experienced the equivalent of the bottom dropping out of the creative market. Anything creative that was generally done in front of other people became mostly impossible, overnight.

Everyone going into a creative profession, especially as a freelancer, knows the risks. Precarity. Uncertainty. Vulnerability to market forces completely beyond our control. But just as in investment, in return for accepting the higher risk, we receive various rewards: maybe it’s a degree of control over our lifestyle, or flexibility with working hours.

We might be tempted to think Covid-19 is an isolated occurrence, but there have been other market-altering calamities, and there will be more to come. All manner of events can affect our ability to do what we do, be it external, such as a market crash, or personal, such as a change in circumstances, or an unexpected illness.

Is there a way of inoculating ourselves against these risks? And how feasible is it for a creative person to ‘diversify’?

Risk tolerance

In investing, you decide how much to put into the riskiest assets – equities, for example – vs the safer options – bonds, cash – by determining your individual risk tolerance. Younger people are advised to take more risks; the market generally evens out over time, meaning over a longer time-frame, you’re less likely to lose out. Those coming closer to when they might need the money are advised to shift the balance to less risky assets.

So, as someone just starting out, you might justifiably put all your eggs in one creative basket, and commit full-time to your passion. In the event of a Calamitous Event(TM), your liabilities are few, and you can dust yourself down and try again, or try something else.

But not everyone has the same tolerance for this level of risk. Those with more liabilities, or dependants, might want to swim more cautiously in these waters, to have a backup plan, or even something else running along the side.

Transferable skills and ‘side hustles’

Let’s assume for now that we want to do the latter. We’ll commit to our chosen focus, but we’ll try and spare 5% or so of our energy to keep something else on the back burner. What that something else is depends on a number of things.

The investment analogy suggests that to be diversified against risk, our supplementary activity needs to be in a different enough field that it would be unaffected by anything that might threaten our core activity. Here’s an obvious example: if our core focus requires live performance and travel, then the ideal bulwark against this year’s particular obstacle is a job that can be done at home.

If our subsidiary focus can be one that informs and enriches the main discipline, so much the better. The classic supplementary job in the world of musical performance is teaching or tutoring – leveraging existing knowledge and pre-gained experience to generate a more securely predictable income. And teaching can be just as valuable for the teacher as the pupil – something I’ve certainly found as I’ve begun to teach conducting. For me, teaching and writing have been sidelines that enhance and help me reflect on what I think of as my main discipline – and inevitably the balance will keep shifting.

We want something that will enrich and be enriched by our main specialism, but is sufficiently separate from it to avoid the same risks. Of course, not everyone will have a sub-specialism that meets these criteria, but there are other ways – perhaps there’s a related hobby that can be monetised.

I’m wary of what’s become known as hustle culture – the idea that we should always be trying to monetise our activities, spending all our time thinking of new ways to make money. I can’t imagine it’s possible to be a reflective, creative person without a bit of space in our lives, and I’m not suggesting that we need to adopt the ‘hustle’ mindset to achieve diversification. Instead, I want to safeguard that creative space by attempting to mitigate the risks associated with it.

The world as it should be vs the world as it is

This position might seem a little cynical. Shouldn’t artists be free to pursue their art to the exclusion of all else? The answer, in an ideal world, is yes, absolutely. Whether the solution ends up being a Universal Basic Income or something else, a world in which we can all exercise complete freedom of creative choice, unconstrained by market forces, or what will make money – that’s surely the goal.

However, we don’t live in this perfect world. The real world has yet to catch up to this ideal. We are, unless we are very lucky, tethered to the fortunes of the financial systems in which we live, as well as subject to the vagueries of taste or politics. For me, that awareness breeds a certain caution, and it’s why I’m going to try to keep myself, at least a little bit, diversified.


Now, you might say: Pavarotti never ‘diversified’! Da Vinci didn’t have a ‘side hustle’! Artistic geniuses always devote themselves 100% to their passions, ignoring the constraints of the ‘market’ or the ‘real world’!

Even if that were true, and even if I got away with that straw man – and I’m pretty sure it isn’t and I didn’t – most of the ‘genius artists’ we might include in this category were not only talented and hard-working, but lucky – and we might not be. So if we’re OK with embracing a bit more risk to become a bit more successful, all good. But if our risk tolerance means balancing the risk with something else, there’s no shame in that.